Early Dynastic Period (Mesopotamia)

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For the period of the same name in Egypt, see Early Dynastic Period (Egypt).
Early Dynastic Period
Map showing the extent of the Early Dynastic Period (Mesopotamia)
Geographical range Lower Mesopotamia
Period Bronze Age
Dates fl. c. 2900 BC — c. 2350 BC
Type site Tell Agrab, Tell Asmar
Major sites Tell Abu Shahrain, Tell al-Madain, Tell as-Senkereh, Tell Abu Habbah, Tell Fara
Preceded by Jemdet Nasr Period
Followed by Akkadian Period

The Early Dynastic period (abbreviated ED period or ED) is an archaeological culture in southern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), generally dated to approximately 2900–2350 BC. It was preceded by the Uruk period and Jemdet Nasr period, which saw the formation of the first states, the first cities, and the invention of writing. The ED period itself was characterized by the existence of multiple city-states: small states with a relatively simple structure that developed and solidified over time. This development ultimately led to the unification of much of southern Mesopotamia under the rule of Sargon of Akkad, the first king of the Akkadian Empire. Despite this political fragmentation, the Early Dynastic city-states shared a relatively homogeneous material culture. Sumerian cities like Uruk, Ur, Lagash, Umma and Nippur, located in the south of Mesopotamia, were very powerful and influential. To the north and west stretched states centered on cities such as Kish, Mari, Nagar and Ebla.

The study of central and southern Mesopotamia has long been given priority over neighboring regions. Archaeological sites in southern and central Mesopotamia, notably Girsu, but also Eshnunna, Khafajah, Ur and many others, have been excavated since the 19th century, yielding cuneiform texts and many other important artifacts. As a result, this area was always better known than neighboring regions. The excavation and publication of the archives of Ebla have changed this perspective, shedding more light on surrounding areas such as southwestern Iran, Upper Mesopotamia and western Syria. These new findings revealed that southern Mesopotamia shared many socio-cultural developments with neighboring areas and the entire Ancient Near East participated in an exchange network in which material goods and ideas were circulated.

History of research[edit]

Archaeologist Henri Frankfort who coined the term Early Dynastic Period

The term 'Early Dynastic Period' (ED) which was coined by archaeologist Henri Frankfort, analogous to the similarly named period in Egypt.[1] The periodization was developed in the 1930s during excavations that were conducted by Frankfort on behalf of the University of Chicago Oriental Institute on the sites of Tell Khafajah, Tell Agrab, and Tell Asmar in the Diyala region in Iraq.[2] The subdivision into ED I, II, and III was primarily based on complete changes through time in the plan of the Abu Temple of Tell Asmar, which had been rebuilt multiple times on exactly the same spot.[2] Since then, the ED I–III has been widely applied to excavations elsewhere in Iraq.

During the 20th century, many archaeologists also tried to impose the scheme of ED I–III upon archaeological remains of the third millennium excavated elsewhere in Iraq and in northeastern Syria. However, accumulating evidence from sites elsewhere in Iraq has shown that the ED I–III periodization as reconstructed for the Diyala region cannot be directly applied to other regions.

Research in Syria has likewise shown that developments there were quite different from those in the Diyala or southern Iraq, rendering the traditional southern Mesopotamian chronology useless. During the 1990s and 2000s, attempts were made by various scholars to arrive at a local northern Mesopotamian chronology, resulting in the Early Jezirah (EJ) 0–V chronology that encompasses the entire third millennium BC.[1] The use of the ED I–III chronology is now generally limited to southern Mesopotamia, with the ED II period sometimes being further restricted to the Diyala region, or discredited altogether.[1][2]


Further information: History of Mesopotamia
Scarlet Ware pottery, late Jemdet Nasr period - early ED I period, excavated in the Diyala region (now in the University of Chicago Oriental Institute)

The ED period is preceded by the Jemdet Nasr period and succeeded by the Akkadian Period, during which, for the first time in history, large parts of Mesopotamia were united under a single ruler. The entire ED period is now generally dated to approximately 2900–2350 BC according to the Middle Chronology, or 2800–2230 BC according to the Short Chronology.[1][3] The ED period is further divided into sub-periods ED I, ED II, ED IIIa, and ED IIIb. ED I–III are more or less contemporary with the Early Jezirah (EJ) I–III periods in northern Mesopotamia.[1] The exact dating of the ED sub-periods varies between scholars, with some abandoning the ED II altogether and using Early/Late ED instead, or by extending ED I and letting ED III begin earlier so that they follow immediately upon each other.[1][2][4][5]

The ED scheme is an archaeological subdivision that does not reflect political developments, as is the case for the periods that follow upon it. The reason for this is that the political history of the ED period is unknown for most of its duration. As with the archaeological subdivision, the reconstruction of political events is hotly debated among researchers.

Period Middle Chronology
All dates BC
Short Chronology
All dates BC
ED I 2900–2750/2700 2800–2600
ED II 2750/2700–2600 2600–2500
ED IIIa 2600–2500/2450 2500–2375
ED IIIb 2500/2450–2350 2375–2230

The ED I (2900–2750/2700 BC) is relatively poorly known. In southern Mesopotamia, it shares characteristics with the final stretch of the Uruk period (3300–3100 BC) and the Jemdet Nasr period (3100–2900 BC).[6] Elsewhere, ED I is contemporary with the so-called Scarlet Ware (Diyala area), Ninevite 5 (Upper Mesopotamia) and the Proto-Elamite cultures (southwestern Iran).

During the ED II (2750/2700–2600 BC), new artistic traditions developed in Lower Mesopotamia. These in turn influenced the surrounding regions. According to later Mesopotamian historical tradition, this was the time when famous kings such as Lugalbanda, Enmerkar, Gilgamesh of Uruk and Aga of Kish ruled over Mesopotamia. Archaeologically, this period has not been well attested in excavations in southern Mesopotamia, leading some researchers to abandon it altogether.[7]

ED III (2600–2350 BC) saw an expansion in the use of writing and increasing social inequality. It is usually subdivided in ED IIIa (2600–2500/2450 BC) and ED IIIb (2500/2450–2350 BC). ED IIIa is the period of the Royal Cemetery at Ur and the archives of Fara and Abu Salabikh. The ED III is especially well-known through the archives of Girsu (part of Lagash) in Sumer and of Ebla in Syria. During this period, larger political entities developed in Upper Mesopotamia and southwestern Iran.

The end of the Early Dynastic period is not defined archaeologically, but politically. The conquests of Sargon of Akkad and his successors upset the political equilibrium in Mesopotamia, Syria and Elam. Their political impact is undeniable, especially because they lasted over many years into the reign of Naram-Sin of Akkad and because they built on ongoing conquests during the Early Dynastic period. On the other hand, the transition is much harder to pinpoint within an archaeological context; it is virtually impossible to date a site to either ED III or Akkadian based on ceramic or architectural evidence alone.[8][9][10][11]

Geographical context[edit]

Southern Mesopotamia[edit]

Principal sites that were occupied in southern Mesopotamia during the third millennium BC

The preceding Uruk period in Southern Mesopotamia saw the appearance of the first cities, early state structures, administrative practices and writing. Evidence for these practices is also attested during the Early Dynastic period.

The ED period is the first for which it is possible to say something about the (ethnic) composition of the population of Southern Mesopotamia. This is due to the fact that texts from this period contain sufficient phonetic signs to distinguish separate languages. They also contain personal names, which can potentially be linked to an ethnic identity. The textual evidence suggests that Southern Mesopotamia during the ED period was primarily occupied by Sumerians, who spoke Sumerian, a language isolate. It is still debated whether the Sumerian language was already in place during the Uruk period.[12]

Textual evidence indicates the existence of a Semitic population in upper Southern Mesopotamia. Texts contain personal names and words from a Semitic language identified as Old Akkadian. However, the use of the term Akkadian before the emergence of the Akkadian Empire is problematic and it has been proposed to call this Old Akkadian phase Kish civilization instead, after the seemingly most powerful city during the ED period.[13][14][15] Political and socio-economic structures in these two regions also differed, although Sumerian influence is unparalleled during the Early Dynastic period.

Agriculture in Lower Mesopotamia relied on intensive irrigation. Cultivars included barley and date palms in combination with gardens and orchards. Animal husbandry was also practiced, focusing on sheep and goat.[16] This agricultural system was probably the most productive in the entire Ancient Near East. It allowed the development of a highly urbanized society. It has been suggested that, in some areas of Sumer, the population of the urban centers during ED III represented three-quarters of the entire population.[17][18]

The dominant political structure was the city state, in which a large urban center dominated the surrounding rural settlements. The territories of these city states were in turn delimited by other city states that were organized along the same principles. The most important centers were Uruk, Ur, Lagash, Adab, and Umma-Gisha. Available texts from this period point to recurring conflicts between neighbouring kingdoms, notably between Umma and Lagash.

The situation may have been different further north, in the area where Semitic people seem to have been dominant. In this area, Kish possibly was the center of a large territorial state, competing with other powerful political entities such as Mari and Akshak.[12][19]

The Diyala River valley is another region for which the ED period is relatively well-known. This region, and neighboring areas, was home to the so-called Scarlet Ware, a type of painted pottery characterized by geometric motifs representing natural and anthropomorphic figures. In the Jebel Hamrin, fortresses like Tell Gubba and Tell Maddhur were constructed. It has been suggested that these sites were established to protect the main trade route from the Mesopotamian lowlands to the Iranian plateau. The main Early Dynastic sites for this region are Tell Asmar and Khafajah. Their political structure is unknown, but culturally these sites were clearly influenced by the larger cities in the Mesopotamian lowland.[6][20][21]

Neighbouring regions[edit]

Northern Mesopotamia and central-western Syria[edit]

Map detailing the First Eblaite Kingdom at its height c. 2340 BC.
Map detailing the Second Mariote Kingdom at its height c. 2290 BC.

At the beginning of the third millennium BC, the Ninevite V culture flourished in Northern Mesopotamia and the region of the Middle Euphrates. It extended from Yorghan Tepe (later Nuzi) in the east to the Khabur Triangle in the west. Ninevite V was contemporary with ED I and marked an important step in the urbanization of the region, but remains archaeologically poorly known.[20][22] The period seems to have experienced a phase of decentralisation, as reflected by the absence of large monumental buildings and complex administrative systems similar to what had existed at the end of the fourth millennium BC.

Starting in 2700 BC, and accelerating after 2500, the main urban sites grew considerably in size and were surrounded by towns and villages that fell inside their political sphere of influence. This indicates that the area was home to many political entities. Many sites in northern Mesopotamia (for example Tell Chuera and Tell Beydar) share a similar layout: a main tell surrounded by a circular lower town. German archaeologist Max von Oppenheim called them Kranzhügel, or “cup-and-saucer-hills”. Among the important sites of this period are Tell Brak (Nagar), Tell Mozan, Tell Leilan and Chagar Bazar in the Jezirah and Mari on the middle Euphrates.[23]

Urbanization also increased in western Syria, notably in the second half of the third millennium. Sites like Tell Banat, Tell Hadidi, Umm el-Marra, Qatna, Ebla, Al-Rawda developed early state structures, as evidenced by the written documentation of Ebla. Substantial monumental architecture such as palaces, temples and monumental tombs appeared in this period, and there is evidence for the existence of a rich and powerful local elite.[24]

The two cities of Mari and Ebla dominate the historical record for this region. According to the excavator of Mari, the circular city on the middle Euphrates was founded ex nihilo at the time of the Early Dynastic I period in southern Mesopotamia.[16][25][26] Mari was one of the main cities of the Middle East during this period, and it fought many wars with Ebla during the 24th century BC. The archives of Ebla, capital of a powerful kingdom during the ED IIIb period, indicate that writing and the state were well-developed, contrary to what had been believed about this area before its discovery. However, few buildings from this period have been excavated at the site of Ebla itself.[16][25][27]

The territories of these kingdoms were much larger than in southern Mesopotamia. Population density, however, was much lower than in the south, and subsistence agriculture and pastoralism were less intensive. Towards the west, agriculture takes on more "Mediterranean" aspects: cultivation of olive and grape were very important in Ebla. Sumerian influence was notable in Mari and Ebla. At the same time, these regions with a Semitic population shared characteristics with the Kish civilization, while also maintaining their own unique cultural traits.[13][14][28]

Iranian plateau and beyond[edit]

Approximate locations of regions and kingdoms that are known from Mesopotamian written evidence form the third millennium BC.

In southwestern Iran, the first half of the Early Dynastic period corresponds with the Proto-Elamite period. This period is characterized by indigenous art, a script that has not yet been deciphered, and an elaborate metallurgy in the Lorestan region. This culture disappears toward the middle of the third millennium, to be replaced by a less sedentary way of life. Due to the absence of written evidence and a lack of archaeological excavations targeting this period, the socio-political situation of Proto-Elamite southwestern Iran is not well-understood. Mesopotamian texts indicate that the Sumerian kings dealt with political entities in this area. For example, legends relating to the kings of Uruk refer to conflicts with Aratta, an as yet unidentified kingdom that might have been located in southwestern Iran.

In the middle third millennium, Elam emerged as a powerful political entity in the area of southern Lorestan and northern Khuzestan.[29][19] Susa (level IV) was a central place in Elam and an important gateway between southwestern Iran and southern Mesopotamia. Hamazi was located in the Zagros Mountains to the north or east of Elam, possibly between the Great Zab and the Diyala River, near Halabja.[19]

This is also the area where the still largely unknown Jiroft culture emerged in the third millennium, as evidenced by excavation and looting of archaeological sites.[30] The areas further north and east were important participants in the international trade of this period due to the presence of tin (central Iran and the Hindu Kush) and lapis lazuli (Turkmenistan and northern Afghanistan). Settlements such as Tepe Sialk, Tureng Tepe, Tepe Hissar, Namazga-Tepe, Altyndepe, Shahr-e Sukhteh and Mundigak served as local exchange and production centres, but were apparently not the capitals of larger political entities.[25][31][32]

Persian Gulf[edit]

The further development of maritime trade in the Persian Gulf led to increased contacts between souther Mesopotamia and other regions. From the previous period onward, the area of modern-day Oman, known in ancient texts as Magan, had seen the development of the oasis settlement system. This system relied on irrigation agriculture in areas with perennial springs. Magan thanked its position in the trade network to its copper deposits. These were located in the mountains, notably near Hili, where copper workshops and monumental tombs testifying to the area’s affluence have been excavated.

Further to the west was an area called Dilmun, in later periods corresponding to modern Bahrain. However, while Dilmun was mentioned in contemporary ED texts, no sites from this period have been excavated there. This may indicate that Dilmun may have rather indicated the coastal areas serving as a place of transit for the maritime trade network.[6][25]

The maritime trade in the Gulf extended as far east as the Indian subcontinent, where the Indus Valley Civilisation flourished.[25] This trade intensified during the third millennium and reached its peak during the Akkadian and Ur III periods.


Further information: History of Sumer and History of Mesopotamia

The contemporary sources from the Early Dynastic period do not allow the reconstruction of a political history. Royal inscriptions only offer a glimpse of the (military) conflicts and relations between the different city-states. Instead, rulers were more interested in glorifying their pious acts, such as the construction and restoration of temples and offerings to the gods.

For the ED I and ED II periods, there are no contemporary documents shedding any light on warfare or diplomacy. Only for the end of the ED III period are contemporary texts available from which a political history can be reconstructed. The largest archives come from Lagash and Ebla; smaller collections of clay tablets have been found at Ur, Tell Beydar, Tell Fara, Abu Salabikh and Mari.[5] They show that the Mesopotamian states were constantly involved in diplomatic contacts, leading to political and perhaps even religious alliances. Sometimes, one state would gain hegemony over another; a situation that would foreshadow the rise of the Akkadian Empire.

The well-known Sumerian King List dates to the early second millennium BC. It consists of a succession of royal dynasties from different Sumerian cities, ranging back into the Early Dynastic Period. Each dynasty rises to prominence and dominates the region, only to be replaced by the next. The document was used by later Mesopotamian kings to legitimize their rule. While some of the information in the list can be checked against other texts, such as economic documents, much of it is probably purely fictional and its use as a historical document is limited.[5]

Diplomatic relations in Sumer[edit]

Foundation nail commemorating the peace treaty between Entemena of Lagash and Lugal-kinishe-dudu of Uruk (c. 2500 BC)

There seems to have existed a notion of a common or shared cultural identity among the Early Dynastic Sumerian city-states, despite their political fragmentation. This notion was expressed by the terms kalam or ki-engir.[19] Numerous texts and cylinder seals seem to indicate the existence of a league or amphictyony of Sumerian city-states. For example, clay tablets from Ur bear cylinder seal impressions with signs representing other cities. Similar impressions have also been found at Jemdet Nasr, Uruk and Susa.[33] Some impressions always show the exact same list of cities. It has been suggested that this represented a system in which specific cities were associated with delivering offerings to the major Sumerian temples, similar to the bala system of the Ur III period.[34]

The texts from Shuruppak, dating to ED IIIa, also seem to confirm the existence of a ki-engir league. Member cities of the alliance included Umma, Lagash, Uruk, Nippur and Adab. Kish may have had a leading position, whereas Shuruppak may have been the administrative center. The members may have assembled in Nippur, but this is uncertain. This alliance seems to have focused on economic and military collaboration, as each city would dispatch soldiers to the league.[35] The primacy of Kish is illustrated by the fact that its ruler Mesilim (c. 2500 BC) acted as arbitrator in a conflict between Lagash and Umma. However, it is not certain whether Kish held this elevated position during the entire period, as the situation seems to have been different during later conflicts between Lagash and Umma. Later, rulers from other cities would use the title 'King of Kish' to strengthen their hegemonic ambitions, and possibly also because of the symbolic value of the city.[12][19]

The texts of this period also reveal the first traces of a wide-ranging diplomatic network.[36] For example, the peace treaty between Entemena of Lagash and Lugal-kinishe-dudu of Uruk, recorded on a clay nail, represents the oldest known agreement of such a kind.[19] Tablets from Girsu record reciprocal gifts between the royal court and foreign states. Thus, Baranamtarra, wife of king Lugalanda of Lagash, exchanged gifts with her peers from Adab and even Dilmun.[37]

The first recorded conflicts[edit]

The "War" panel of the Standard of Ur. showing combattants engaged in military activities
Detail of the Stele of the Vultures showing a military charioteer

It is only for the later parts of the ED period that information on political events becomes available; either as echoes in later writings, or from contemporary sources. Writings from the end of the third millennium, including several Sumerian heroic narratives and the Sumerian King List, seem to echo events and military conflicts that may have occurred during the ED II period. For example, the reigns of legendary figures like king Gilgamesh of Uruk and his adversaries Enmebaragesi and Aga of Kish possibly date to ED II.[38] These semi-legendary narratives seem to preserve the memory of an age dominated by two major powers, Uruk in Sumer and Kish in the Semitic country. However, the existence of the kings of this "heroic age" remains controversial.[19][39]

It is only for the ED IIIb period that somewhat reliable contemporary information on political events in Mesopotamia becomes available. These texts come mainly from Lagash and detail the recurring conflict with Umma about control of irrigated land.[40] The kings of Lagash kings are absent from the Sumerian King List, as are their rivals, the kings of Umma. This suggests that these states, while powerful in their own time, were later forgotten.

The royal inscriptions from Lagash also mention wars against other Lower Mesopotamian city-states, as well as against kingdoms farther away. Examples of the latter include Mari, Subartu, and Elam. These conflicts show that already in this stage in history there was a trend toward stronger states dominating larger territories. For example, king Eannatum of Lagash was able to defeat Mari and Elam around 2450 BC. Enshakushanna of Uruk seized Kish and imprisoned its king Enbi-Ishtar around 2430. Lugal-zage-si, king of Uruk and Umma, was able to seize most of Lower Mesopotamia around 2450. This phase of warring city-states came to an end with the emergence of the Akkadian Empire under the rule of Sargon of Akkad.[19][12]

Neighbouring areas[edit]

The political history of Upper Mesopotamia and Syria is well-known from the royal archives recovered at Ebla. Ebla, Mari, and Nagar were the dominant states for this period. The earliest texts indicate that Ebla paid tribute to Mari, but was able to reduce it after it won a military victory.[41][42] Cities like Emar on the Upper Euphrates and Abarsal (location unknown) were vassals of Ebla. Ebla exchanged gifts with Nagar, and a royal marriage was concluded between the daughter of a king of Ebla and the son of his counterpart at Nagar. The archives also contain letters from more distant kingdoms, such as Kish and possibly Hamazi, although it is also possible that there were cities with the same names closer to Ebla.[19] In many ways, the diplomatic interactions in the wider Ancient Near East during this period resemble those from the second millennium BC, which are particularly well-known from the Amarna letters.[43]


Each city-state was centered on a temple which dedicated to the patron deity of its respective city-state and ruled over by both/either a king ("lugal") and/or a priestly governor ("énsí"). Kingship was seen as handed down by the deities, and could be transferred from one city-state to another (reflecting perceived hegemony in the region).[44] Hegemony (which came to be conferred by the Nippur priesthood) alternated among a number of competing dynasties, hailing from Sumerian city-states traditionally including Eridu, Bad-tibira, Larsa, Sippar, Shuruppak, Kish, Uruk, Ur, Adab and Akshak, additionally; some from outside of the Tigris-Euphrates river system in Iraq such as Hamazi, Awan (believed to have been located in present-day Iran), and Mari (which lies in present-day Syria, but which is credited on the SKL as having "exercised kingship" during the ED II period).

There are different theories regarding the meaning of the title "lugal" during the ED Period. Some believe that a ruler of an individual city-state was usually referred to as the "énsí" of that city-state, additionally; the ruler of a confederacy or dominion composed of multiple city-states (perhaps even the whole of Sumer) may have been referred to as the "lugal". A lugal during this time has been assumed to have been, "normally a young man of outstanding qualities from a rich landowning family." Renowned scholar Thorkild Jacobsen theorized that a "lugal" was originally an elected war leader, as opposed to the likewise elected "en", who dealt with internal issues. The functions of such a lugal would include military defense against enemies, arbitration in border disputes, along with certain ceremonial and cultic activities. Once the lugal died, the eldest son of the lugal would become the successor.[45][46] Among the earliest rulers whose inscriptions refer to them as "lugals" are both Enmebaragesi and Mesilim of Kish, additionally; Meskalamdug, Mesannepada, and several of Mesannepada's successors at Ur.

Jacobsen used Sumerian epics, myths, and historical records to identify what he referred to as a primitive democracy. Jacobsen described a government in which ultimate power rested with the mass of free male citizens, however; he added, "the various functions of government are as yet little specialised [and] the power structure is loose." Kings such as Gilgamesh of the First Dynasty of Uruk did not appear to hold the autocratic power that later Mesopotamian rulers wielded. Rather, major city-states functioned with both councils of elders and “young men” (likely free men bearing arms) that possessed the final political authority, and had to be consulted on all major issues such as war.[47][48] Although pioneering in nature, the work has invoked little serious discussion and gained little outright acceptance. Scholars criticized the use of the word "democracy" in this context since the same evidence can also be interpreted convincingly to demonstrate a power struggle between primitive monarchs and noble classes (a struggle in which the common people function more like pawns rather than any kind of sovereign authority).[49] Jacobsen conceded that the vagueness of the evidence prohibits the separation between the Mesopotamian democracy from a primitive oligarchy.[50]

"Lugal" (Sumerian: 𒈗, as a Sumerogram is a ligature of two signs: "𒃲" meaning "big" or "great" while "𒇽" means "man"; a Sumerian language title translated into the English language as either "king" or "ruler") was one of the three titles that a ruler of a Sumerian city-state could bear (alongside both "EN" and "énsí", the exact difference being a subject of debate). The sign for "lugal" eventually became the predominant logograph for "king" in general. In the Sumerian language, "lugal" could have been used to mean either "owner" (such as the owner of a boat or a field) or "head", such as the head of a unit or a family.[45] The cuneiform sign for "lugal" serves as a determinative in cuneiform texts, indicating that the following word would be the name of the king.

There are different theories regarding the meaning of the title "lugal" during the ED Period of Mesopotamia. Some scholars believe that a ruler of an individual city-state was usually referred to as the "énsí" of that city-state, additionally; the ruler of a confederacy or dominion composed of multiple city-states (perhaps even the whole of Sumer) may have been referred to as the "lugal". A lugal during this time has been assumed to have been, "normally a young man of outstanding qualities from a rich landowning family." Jacobsen theorized that a "lugal" was originally an elected war leader, as opposed to the likewise elected "en", who dealt with internal issues. The functions of such a lugal would include military defense against enemies, arbitration in border disputes, along with certain ceremonial and cultic activities. Once the lugal died, the eldest son of the lugal would become the successor.[45][46] Among the earliest rulers whose inscriptions refer to them as "lugals" are both Enmebaragesi and Mesilim of Kish, additionally; Meskalamdug, Mesannepada, and several of Mesannepada's successors at Ur.

"Ensí" (Sumerian: B464ellst.png C+B-Babylonia-CuneiformImage16.PNG B181ellst.png; meaning "Lord of the Plowland")[51] is a Sumerian language title designating the ruler or prince of a city-state. The énsí was considered a representative of a city-state's patron deity.[52] Ensí may have originally been a designation of the ruler restricted to the city-states of Lagash and Umma,[53] however; in later periods the title presupposed subordinance to a lugal. Although an énsí may have normally been seen as subordinate to a lugal, nevertheless; some rulers of the Second Dynasty of Lagash were satisfied with the title “énsí”. Interestingly, the énsís of the city-state Lagash would sometimes refer to their city's patron deity (Ningirsu) as their “lugal”.

"EN" (Sumerian: 𒂗; Sumerian cuneiform for "lord" or "priest") seems to have originally been used to designate a high priest or priestess of a Sumerian city-state's patron deity[54] — a position that entailed political power as well. It may also have been the original title of the ruler of Uruk. All of the above is connected to the possibly priestly or sacral character of both of the titles "énsí" and especially "en" (the latter term continued to designate priests in subsequent times). Other scholars consider ensi, en and lugal to have merely been three local designations for the sovereign, accepted respectively in the city-states Lagash, Uruk and Ur (although the various terms may have expressed different aspects of the Mesopotamian concept of kingship).

Sumer was divided into about thirteen independent city-states (which were divided by canals and boundary stones) during its ED Period. According to the SKL, the first five city-states (listed alongside their principal temple complexes and the gods they served[55]) to have exercised kingship before the "Flood" were:

City-state Archaeological site Principle temple complex Patron deity
1. Eridu Tell Abu Shahrain E-abzu Enki
2. Bad-tibira Tell al-Madain E-mush Dumuzi and Inana
3. Larsa Tell as-Senkereh E-babbar Utu
4. Sippar Tell Abu Habbah E-babbar Utu
5. Shuruppak Tell Fara E-dimgalanna Ninlil

The next seven city-states to have exercised kingship after the Flood were:

City-state Archaeological site Principle temple complex Patron deity
6. Kish Tell Uheimir and Ingharra  ? Ninhursag
7. Uruk E-anna district, Bit Resh (Kullaba), and Irigal E-anna Inana and An
8. Ur Tell al-Muqayyar E-kishnugal Nanna
9. Awan 1 ? ? ?
10. Hamazi 2 ? ? ?
11. Adab ? ? ?
12. Mari 3 Tell Hariri ? Mer
13. Akshak 2 ? ? ?

1 The exact location of this city-state is uncertain, but is probably somewhere in what is today referred to as the "Islamic Republic of Iran".

2 The exact location of this city-state is uncertain, but is probably somewhere in what is today referred to as the "Republic of Iraq".

3 The location of this city-state is at an outlying archaeological site in the territory of what is today referred to as the "Syrian Arab Republic".


Uruk, which was one of Sumer's largest city-states, has been estimated to have had a population of 50,000 — 80,000 at its peak.[56] Given the other city-states in Sumer (and its large agricultural population), a rough estimate for Sumer's population might have been somewhere between 800,000 — 1,500,000. The global human population at this time has been estimated to having been about 27,000,000.[57] Permanent year-round urban settlement may have been prompted by intensive agricultural practices. The work required in maintaining irrigation canals called for, and the resulting surplus food enabled, relatively concentrated populations. The centers of Eridu and Uruk (two of the earliest cities) had successively elaborated large temple complexes built out of mudbrick. Developing as small shrines with the earliest settlements, by the ED I period, they had become the most imposing structures in their respective cities, each dedicated to its own respective god. The earliest cities in history appear in the ancient Near East. The area of the ancient Near East covers roughly that of the modern Middle East; its history begins in the 4th millennium BC. The largest cities of the Bronze Age Near East housed several tens of thousands. Ur in the Middle Bronze Age is estimated to have had some 65,000 inhabitants. The KI 𒆠 determinative was the Sumerian term for a city or city state.[58]

Table 1: 2800 BC — 2300 BC
City-state 2800 BC 2600 BC 2500 BC 2300 BC
Adab 11,000 [59] ? 13,000 [59] 10,000 [59]
Akshak ? ? ? ?
Awan ? ? ? ?
Bad-tibira 16,000 [59] ? ? ?
Eridu ? ? ? ?
Hamazi ? ? ? ?
Kish 40,000 [59] ? 25,000 [59] 10,000 [59]
Larsa ? ? 10,000 [59] ?
Mari ? ? ? ?
Sippar ? ? ? ?
Shuruppak 20,000 [59] ? 17,000 [59] ?
Ur 6,000 [59] ? ? ?
Uruk 80,000 [59] 80,000 [60] 50,000 [59] ?


Further information: Cuneiform law

Code of Urukagina[edit]

Further information: Code of Urukagina

The énsi Urukagina, of the city-state of Lagash, is best known for his reforms to combat corruption (the "Code of Urukagina" is sometimes cited as the earliest known example of a legal code in recorded history). The Code of Urukagina has also been widely hailed as the first recorded example of government reform, seeking to achieve a higher level of freedom and equality.[61] Although the actual "Code of Urukagina" text has yet to be discovered, much of its content may be surmised from other references to it that have been found. In the Code of Urukagina, Urukagina exempted widows and orphans from taxes, compelled the city to pay funeral expenses (including the ritual food and drink libations for the journey of the dead into the lower world), and decreed that the rich had to use silver when purchasing from the poor, and if the poor does not wish to sell, the powerful man (the rich man or the priest) cannot force him to do so.[62] The Code of Urukagina limited the power of both the priesthood and large property owners, took measures against usury, burdensome controls, hunger, theft, murder, and seizure (of people's property and persons); as Urukagina stated: "The widow and the orphan were no longer at the mercy of the powerful man."

Despite these apparent attempts to curb the excesses of the elite class, it seems elite or royal women enjoyed even greater influence and prestige in Urukagina's reign than previously. Urukagina greatly expanded the royal "Household of Women" from about 50 persons to about 1,500 persons, then renamed it to "Household of Goddess Bau", gave it ownership of vast amounts of land confiscated from the former priesthood, and placed it under the supervision of Urukagina's wife (Shasha, or Shagshag).[63] During the second year of Urukagina's reign, his wife presided over the lavish funeral of his predecessor's queen (Baranamtarra, who had been an important personage in her own right).

In addition to such changes, two of Urukagina's other surviving decrees (first published and translated by Samuel Kramer in 1964) have attracted controversy in recent decades:

  1. Urukagina seems to had abolished the former custom of polyandry in his country, on pain of the woman taking multiple husbands being stoned with rocks upon which her crime was written.[64]
  2. In a statute where it was written "If a woman says [text illegible...] to a man, her mouth is crushed with burnt bricks."

No comparable laws from Urukagina addressing penalties for adultery by men have survived. The discovery of these fragments has led some modern critics to assert that they provide "the first written evidence of the degradation of women."[65]


Further information: Imports to Ur

The Sumerian people used slaves, although they were not a major part of the economy. Slave women were forced to work as pressers, weavers, millers, and porters.

Sumerian bill of sale of a male slave and a building in the city-state of Shuruppak, dated to c. 2600 BC.

Imports to Ur were being exported from many parts of the world. Discoveries of goods from far-away locations such as obsidian from Anatolia, lapis lazuli from Badakhshan, beads from the Dilmun civilization, and seals inscribed with the script from the Indus Valley civilization suggest a remarkably wide-ranging network of ancient trade centered on the Persian Gulf. Metals of all types had to be imported. Both Sumerian masons and jewelers knew and made use of gold, silver, lapiz lazuli,[66] chlorite, ivory, iron, and carnelian. The Epic of Gilgamesh referred to trade with far lands for goods, such as Lebanon cedar wood, which was scarce in Mesopotamia. The finding of resin in the tomb of Queen Puabi at Ur, indicates that resin was traded from as far away as Mozambique. Sumerian potters decorated pots with cedar oil paints. The potters used a bow drill to produce the fire needed for baking the pottery.

Imports to the city-state of Ur reflected the cultural and trade connections of the Sumerian city. During the ED III Period, Ur was importing elite goods from geographically distant places. These objects included precious metals such as gold and silver, and semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli and carnelian. These objects were all the more impressive considering the distance from which they traveled to reach Mesopotamia (and the city-state of Ur, specifically). Mesopotamia was very well-suited for the agricultural production of plants and animals; however, it was lacking in metals, minerals and stones.

The combination of these means of transportation allowed access to a vast trading network connecting distant places. Most of the gold known from archaeological contexts during the ED Period of Mesopotamia is concentrated at the Royal Cemetery of Ur. Textual evidence indicates that gold was reserved for prestige and religious functions. It was gathered in royal treasuries and temples, and used for the adornment of the elites as well as for the elites' funerary offerings, such as at the graves of the Royal Cemetery of Ur. Gold was used for personal ornaments, weapons, tools, sheet-metal cylinder seals, fluted bowls, goblets, imitation cockle shells, and sculptures.

Silver was mainly used for uncoined currency; however, it was also used for objects (which is the state in which silver is found at the Royal Cemetery of Ur). Silver was used for objects including belts, vessels, hair ornaments, pins, weapons, cockle shells, and sculptures. There are very few literary references to sources for silver. It is also difficult to identify the actual origin of the silver and the mines from those areas in which the majority of trade occurred. Because silver was used as currency, it is even more difficult to pinpoint an area of origination due to its vast circulation.

Lapis lazuli is the best-known and well-documented gemstone at the city-state of Ur and in Mesopotamia in general. In the Royal Cemetery of Ur, lapis lazuli was discovered to have been used for jewelry, plaques, gaming boards, lyres, ostrich-egg vessels, and also used for parts of a larger sculptural group referred to as the “Ram in a Thicket”. Some of the larger objects included a spouted cup, a dagger-hilt, and a whetstone. Because of its prestige and value, lapiz lazuli played a special role in cult practices and the term "lapis-like" is a commonly-occurring metaphor for unusual wealth and as an attribute used to describe both deities and heroes. It has commonly been found associated alongside gold.

During the ED Period, chlorite stone artifacts were very popular, and thus traded very widely. Chlorite stone artifacts included disc beads, ornaments, and stone vases. These carved dark stone vessels have been found in ancient archaeological sites across all of Mesopotamia. They rarely exceeded twenty-five centimeters in height, and may have been filled with precious oils. They often carried both human and animal motifs inlaid with semi-precious stones.


Stone sculpture[edit]

Early Dynastic stone sculptures have mainly been recovered from excavated temples. They can be separated in two groups: three-dimensional prayer statues, and perforated bas-reliefs. The so-called Tell Asmar Hoard is a well-known example of Early Dynastic sculpture. It was recovered in a temple and consists of standing figures with their hands folded in prayer or holding a goblet for a libation ritual. Other statues feature seated figures, also in devotional postures. Male figures wear a plain or fringed dress, or kaunakes.[16][6] The statues usually represent notables or rulers. They served as ex-votos and were placed in temples to pray on behalf of the spender. The Sumerian style clearly influenced neighbouring regions. Similar statues have been recovered from sites in Upper Mesopotamia, including Assur, Tell Chuera, and Mari. However, there were also statues that showed greater originality and had less stylistic characteristics in common with Sumerian sculpture.[25][6][16]

Bas-reliefs created from perforated stone slabs are another hallmark of Early Dynastic sculpture. They also served a votive purpose, but their exact function is unknown.[25][6] Examples include the votive relief of king Ur-Nanshe of Lagash and his family, found at Girsu, and that of Dudu, a priest of Ningirsu. The latter showed mythological creatures like a lion-headed eagle.[16] The Stele of the Vultures, created by Eannatum of Lagash, is remarkable in that it represents different scenes that together tell the narrative of the victory of Lagash over its rival Umma.[67] Reliefs like these have been found in Lower Mesopotamia and the Diyala region, but not in Upper Mesopotamia or Syria.


Sumerian metallurgy and goldsmithing were highly developed.[6][25] This is all the more remarkable for a region where metals had to be imported. Known metals included gold, gold, silver, copper, bronze, lead, electrum, and tin. The use of binary, tertiary and quarternary alloys were already in use during the Uruk period. Sumerians used bronze, although the scarcity of tin meant that they used arsenic instead. Metalworking techniques included lost-wax casting, plating, filigree, and granulation.

Numerous metal objects have been excavated from temples and graves, including dishes, weapons, jewelry, statuettes, foundation nails and various other objects of worship. The most remarkable gold objects come from the Royal Cemetery at Ur, including musical instruments and the complete inventory of Puabi’s tomb. Metal vases have also been excavated at other sites in Lower Mesopotamia, including the Vase of Entemena at Lagash.[16]


Cylinder seal from the ED III period with its impression, representing a mythological combat scene

Cylinder seals were used to authenticate documents like sales, and to control access by sealing a lump of clay on doors of storage rooms. The use of cylinder seals increased significantly during the ED period, suggesting an expansion and increased complexity of administrative activities.

During the preceding Uruk period, there was a wide variety in scenes engraved on cylinder seals. This variety disappeared at the start of the third millennium, to be replaced by a an almost exclusive focus on mythological and cultural scenes in Lower Mesopotamia and the Diyala region.[6][16] During the ED I period, seal designs included geometric motifs and stylized pictograms. Later on, combat scenes between real and mythological animals became the dominant theme, together with scenes of heroes fighting animals. Their exact meaning is unclear. Common mythological creatures include anthropomorphic bulls and scorpion-men. Real creatures include lions and eagles. Some anthropomorphic creatures are probably deities, as they wear a horned tiara, which was a symbol of divinity.

Scenes with cultic themes, including banquet scenes, became common during ED II. A common ED III theme was the so-called god-boat, but its meaning is unclear. During the ED III period, ownership of seals was started to be registered. Glyptic development in Upper Mesopotamia and Syria was strongly influenced by Sumerian art.[6]


Piece of inlay made of nacre, inscribed with the name of Akurgal, son of Ur-Nanshe of Lagash (currently in the Louvre)

Examples of inlay have been found at several sites, using materials such as nacre (mother of pearl), white and coloured limestone, lapis lazuli and marble. Bitumen was used to attach the inlay in wooden frames, but these have not survived in the archaeological record.[16][25] The inlay-panels usually showed mythological or historical scenes. Like bas-reliefs, these panels allow the reconstruction of early forms of narrative art. However, this type of work seems to have been abandoned in subsequent periods.

The best preserved inlaid object is the Standard of Ur, found in one of the royal tombs of this city, which represents two principal scenes on its two sides: a battle and a banquet that probably follows a military victory.[16][25] The "dairy frieze" found at Tell al-`Ubaid represents, as its name suggests, dairy activities (milking cows, cowsheds, preparing dairy products). It is the document that provides us with the most information on this type of practices in ancient Mesopotamia [68]

Similar mosaic elements were discovered at Mari, where a mother-of-pearl engraver's workshop was identified, as well as at Ebla where marble fragments were found from a 3m-high panel decorating a room of the royal palace.[25] The scenes of the two sites have strong similarities in their style and themes. In Mari the scenes are of military (a parade of prisoners) or religious (a ram’s sacrifice) nature. In Ebla, they show a military triumph and mythological animals.


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Further reading[edit]

Ascalone, Enrico. 2007. Mesopotamia: Assyrians, Sumerians, Babylonians (Dictionaries of Civilizations; 1). Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-25266-7 (paperback).
Bottéro, Jean, André Finet, Bertrand Lafont, and George Roux. 2001. Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Crawford, Harriet E. W. 2004. Sumer and the Sumerians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Frayne, Douglas. 2008. Pre-Sargonic Period: Early Periods, Volume 1 (2700-2350 BC), University of Toronto Press.
Leick, Gwendolyn. 2002. Mesopotamia: Invention of the City. London and New York: Penguin.
Lloyd, Seton. 1978. The Archaeology of Mesopotamia: From the Old Stone Age to the Persian Conquest. London: Thames and Hudson.
Nemet-Nejat, Karen Rhea. 1998. Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. London and Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Kramer, Samuel Noah (1963). The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-45238-7. 
Kramer, Samuel Noah. Sumerian Mythology: A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium BC.
Roux, Georges. 1992. Ancient Iraq, 560 pages. London: Penguin (earlier printings may have different pagination: 1966, 480 pages, Pelican; 1964, 431 pages, London: Allen and Urwin).
Schomp, Virginia. Ancient Mesopotamia: The Sumerians, Babylonians, And Assyrians.
Sumer: Cities of Eden (Timelife Lost Civilizations). Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1993 (hardcover, ISBN 0-8094-9887-1).
Woolley, C. Leonard. 1929. The Sumerians. Oxford: Clarendon


External links[edit]


Coordinates: 32°00′N 45°30′E / 32.0°N 45.5°E / 32.0; 45.5